Academic Corner General

#MeToo and the ‘continuum of male sexual violence’: A Review of Liz Kelly’s Concept

Written by Matisse Lefebvre

In her influential 1988 work Surviving Sexual Violence, Liz Kelly introduced the concept of a ‘continuum’ to describe male sexual violence against women. This concept was originally based on two dictionary definitions. The first one denotes ‘a basic common character that underlies many different events’ and the second a ‘continuous series of elements or events that pass into one another and cannot be readily distinguished’. The #MeToo movement was initially created as ‘Me Too’ by the American activist Tarana Burke in 2006 in New York to create solidarity among the survivors of sexual violence in her community. It developed and expanded rapidly in October 2017 after American actress Ashley Judd used the hashtag in the New York Times to divulge the sexual harassment perpetrated by film producer Harvey Weinstein. Five days later, Alyssa Milano, another American actress,  tweeted ‘If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet’, thus launching the rapid expansion of the hashtag. Overall, the #MeToo movement can be defined as a ‘social movement against sexual violence and sexual assault that advocates for females who survived sexual violence to speak out about their experience’. Considering the fact that, according to the 2011 US National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey, 43.9% of women have experienced some forms of sexual assault compared to 23.4% of men, this article will exclusively focus on sexual violence against women. 

In Surviving Sexual Violence, Liz Kelly interviewed sixty women about their experiences of sexual violence. From these interviews, she was able to make two notable commentaries: ‘most women ha[ve] experienced sexual violence in their lives’ and the ‘range of men’s behavior that women defined as abusive [is] neither reflected in legal codes nor in the analytic categories used in previous research’. #MeToo shed light on the first commentary made by Kelly. Tarana Burke, in her 2018 Ted Talk, asserted that ‘more people are joining this movement everyday’ and that Me Too has taken off ‘all across the world’ in countries such as ‘Australia and France, Sweden, China and now India’. This seems to have been the point of Alyssa Milano’s October 2017 tweet: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. More than five hundred thousand people replied to that tweet within the next twenty-four hours. Thus, #MeToo seems to have succeeded at giving ‘a sense of the magnitude’ of the sexual violence undergone by women throughout the world. 

To an extent, #MeToo also discussed the problematic dualistic frame through which experiences of sexual violence are understood: ‘something either does or does not meet the criteria for ‘being sexual violence’’. As argued by Betsy Stanko, ‘women’s experiences of male violence are filtered through an understanding of men’s behavior which is characterized as either typical or aberrant’. Kelly’s concept of ‘continuum’ was made to ‘enable women to make sense of their own experiences by showing how ‘typical’ and ‘aberrant’ male behavior shade into one another’. However, it is worth noting that the ‘continuum’ was not conceptualized to create a ‘hierarchy of abuse’, but rather to notice the prevalence of some common forms of sexual violence likely to be defined as ‘acceptable’ by men and their connection to the forms of violence ‘which are currently defined as crimes within the law’. In Surviving Sexual Violence, many women were reluctant to use the word ‘rape’ to describe unwanted sex, and, for instance, the category of ‘pressurized sex’ was introduced to cover ‘experiences in which women decided not to say no to sex but where they felt pressured to consent’. The category proved to be useful as, among the women interviewed, it was found that two-thirds of them did not ‘freely consent to their first experience of heterosexual intercourse’. One of them explained that her boyfriend at the time ‘was never violent or anything — but he — depends on what you call violence — pushy in the sense of you know, when you are a teenager, when you’re with your boyfriend there’s this constant pressure to go further sexually… There’s this constant thing about boys needing sex and confusion about how you feel about it’. The use of the words ‘pressure’ and ‘confusion’ shows the lack of vocabulary to define how women felt about some of their bad sexual encounters. Thus, the category of ‘pressurized sex’ enables women to define some of these ‘harmful, problematic [and] unethical’ experiences.

This ‘pressure’ the interviewee refers to was discussed in the context of #MeToo through a 2018 article ‘detailing a young woman [Grace]’s date with [the American actor] Aziz Ansari’. Among many other elements of pressure, Grace notably recalls how Ansari ‘physically pulled her hand towards his penis multiple times throughout the night […] “He probably moved my hand to his dick five to seven times,” she said. “He really kept doing it after I moved it away.”’. Although Grace did not explicitly ask him to stop, she still removed her hand from the man’s penis a few times, a move that was ignored, among many others, by Ansari as he repeatedly moved her hand back to his penis. The word ‘rape’ is not used in the article, however, elements of what can be called ‘pressurized sex’ are highlighted as such. Some commentaries have emphasized how such a testimony could facilitate ‘discussion of “sex, male entitlement and misogyny in the bedroom”’ which eventually could lead to ‘greater understandings of how the gendered power dynamics at play in hook-up culture result in women being far more likely to feel dissatisfied, if not victimized, in the aftermath of these encounters’. Hence, some cases of sexual harm that do not fall into the binary and restrictive categories of ‘normal’ or ‘aberrant’ male behaviors have been shed light upon in the #MeToo context. #MeToo triggered some discussions about some aspects of the ‘continuum’ and illustrated the need for new categories of analysis such as Kelly’s.

Nevertheless, so far, the movement has only managed to challenge the binarity of such categories of analysis to a minor extent. Shortly after it was published, Grace’s account was discredited for not properly fitting into the ‘aberrant’ category. Referring to the article, journalist Caitlin Flanagan wrote that ‘what she felt afterwards — rejected yet another time, by yet another man — was regret’. It was also said that women were wielding their ‘“temporary power” in a dangerous way’. Not only do these commentaries aims to invalidate Grace’s testimony, but by using the expression ‘temporary power’, they also imply that women do not usually have power and do not know how to use it and that therefore, their empowerment through #MeToo can only be momentary. Such discrediting processes nurture the ordinary character of sexual violence and are intrinsic to the first definition of the ‘continuum’, the ‘basic common character’ underlying sexual violence and the invalidation of the latter being patriarchy: ‘men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it’. Thus, the discrediting of Grace’s account shows the social strength of the binary categories of analysis. 

Moreover, as explained by Karen Boyle, ‘sexual violation has become so embedded in a discourse of crime that linking normal and aberrant behaviors in this way is too easily assumed to be re-positioning ‘normal’ male behavior (and, so, ‘normal’ men) as criminal’. In these cases, two different continuums (the ‘continuum of experiences’ and the ‘continuum of sanction’) are mistaken for one another. This conflation gave birth to the phenomenon of ‘himpathy’. Kate Manne introduced this concept to designate the ‘inappropriate and disproportionate sympathy powerful men often enjoy in cases of sexual assault, homicide and other misogynistic behaviour’. She explains that ‘the higher a man rises in the social hierarchy, the more himpathy he tends to attract. Thus, the bulk of our collective care, consideration, respect and nurturing attention is allotted to the most privileged in our society’. The most privileged are indeed so ‘routinely represented as points of identification’ that himpathy becomes the norm. It is also ‘precisely because they have the most to lose’ that they are represented as ‘vulnerable’’. The discovery of harmful sexual behaviours from powerful men, who were usually represented as sympathetic characters, led to a confusion between the two continuums previously mentioned and caused some people to develop excessive sympathy towards perpetrators, a phenomenon that ‘both owes and contributes to insufficient concern for the harm, humiliation, and (more or less lasting trauma) they may bring to their victims’. One of the typical ways through which himpathy is established is the erasure of the victims from the narratives. The focus on the consequences for the perpetrators and not for the victims shows how perpetrators are victimized for their own misbehaviors or crimes. 

For instance, in December 2017, American actor Matt Damon in an interview for ABC News’ ‘Popcorn with Peter Travers’, mentions the accusations made against Harvey Weinstein, Al Frenken, and Louis C.K. but fails to mention the victims nor their testimonies at all. Such comments can be perceived as more ‘#MeToo and the ‘continuum of male sexual violence’: A Review of Liz Kelly’s Concept’ as the victims are not blamed for speaking out, they are simply erased from the narratives. He asserts that 

‘all of that behavior needs to be confronted, but there is a continuum. And on this end of the continuum where you have rape and child molestation or whatever, you know, that’s prison. […] The other stuff is just kind of shameful and gross […] I don’t know Louis C.K. I’ve never met him. I’m a fan of his, but I don’t imagine he’s going to do those things again […] I imagine the price that he’s paid at this point is so beyond anything that he — I just think that we have to kind of start delineating between what these behaviors are.’ 

Damon refers to the ‘price paid’ by the perpetrator but does not explain what really constitutes that ‘price paid’. He specifies that he appreciates Louis C.K. but does not mention the victims nor their testimonies. They are completely erased from the narrative. He mentions the extreme end of the continuum of experiences (‘rape and child molestation’) but does not explicitly say what the ‘other stuff’ is, thus he does not truly discuss Louis C.K’s harmful sexual behavior. Instead, he immediately refers to the continuum of sanction, therefore exclusively focusing on the male and perpetrator’s experience. He implies that every harmful sexual behavior has been conflated in the #MeToo movement, meaning that each element along the continuum of experiences is described as a crime that would deserve ‘prison’. According to Karen Boyle, it is a ‘regular, but rarely evidenced, claim against #MeToo’ that makes ‘women doing feminism’ appear as irrational, or even ‘hysterical’, while ‘men doing feminism are reasonable and […] unfairly pilloried’. However, Louis C.K was accused of sexual harassment and assault by five women, the ‘price paid’ mentioned by Damon simply refers to a downturn in his career. Thus, Damon’s intervention perfectly illustrates the concept of ‘himpathy’: he shows sympathy for the perpetrator who was never actually criminally sanctioned for his actions and who is also a highly privileged man who was on the list of the highest-paid comedians of 2017, and completely ignores the victims and the traumas the perpetrator might have caused them on the long-run. Thus, the use of the concept of ‘continuum’ of male sexual violence in the #MeToo movement led to a backlash accusing people taking part in the movement of conflating every behavior, while the point was to establish a connection between these behaviors. This backlash was motivated by a preoccupation concerning the sanctions of perpetrators, which led to phenomenons of ‘himpathy’ and conflation between the continuum of women experiences and the continuum of sanction.

However, overall, the #MeToo movement has been white, cisgender, straight, and privileged-focused. The fact that the movement took off across the world after a white American actress incidentally appropriated its name and tweeted using the hashtag, while the black feminist Tarana Burke had created that movement especially for African-American women a decade earlier and was at first ignored as the instigator, shows the privileged nature of the movement. Through the use of hashtags, #MeToo also intrinsically requires access to social media, and only ‘some victim-survivors have had access to [such] platforms […] typically, these individuals have been white, middle-class, heterosexual women’. So far, #MeToo has failed to discuss intersectionality. As explained by Tess Ryan, when ‘‘#MeToo’ is expressed from the perspective of a Black Woman, it becomes more than a feminist fight for justice over harassment and assault. It becomes a conversation about intersectionality – the illumination of multiple layers of power and oppression’. It is believed by some, such as Rachel Loney-Howes, that the format of the movement — speaking out on social media — cannot reflect the oppression of some women (women of color, women with disabilities, refugee women, the LGBTQ community…), for such violent experiences and the ‘political conditions of their lives remain too complex for popular media outlets’. Informally employed women, such as ‘Vijaya, a 29-year-old waste-picker from India, stated: ‘The security guards wouldn’t let us pick waste from the landfill. They would allow some women in, but only those women who slept with them. […] They’d call us thieves, abuse us, throw us out. And on days like that, we’d have to go hungry. […] We were considered to be scavengers and we had to therefore put up with whatever treatment they meted out to us’’, are incredibly unlikely ‘to be logging on to Twitter accounts to share their tales of abuse and exploitation’. Thus, #MeToo has focused on the experiences of privileged women and has completely failed to exemplify the ‘continuum’ of male sexual violence for many women who are not necessarily white, cisgender, straight, disability-free, or from privileged social backgrounds. 


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This article is also available on ArtGate